BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
New programs and initiatives abound at the The Village Chicago, all made possible by fundraising and support for their Annual Benefit, an upscale cocktail party, awards ceremony, and musical program to be held on September 16 at Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University. This year’s theme: “You Can’t Stop the Beat”!
Part of an innovative national network, the Village helps older people celebrate life transitions and tackles the issues of age through its engaged intergenerational network of members, friends, family, sponsors, donors, and community partners.
A small staff and a large group of volunteers led by CEO Darcy Evon are changing the narrative surrounding age through an ambitious series of initiatives that focus on building post-retirement social networks, using technology to improve the lives of older adults, work and purpose, health and wellbeing, brain health, memory loss, and dismantling age biases such as internalized ageism.
“We want people to live their best life possible at any age unencumbered by isolation, loneliness, negative thoughts, feeling overwhelmed about life transitions, or taking care of a spouse, parent, or other loved one,” explains Evon.
“We listen and help people navigate the future with genuine care and companionship,” adds Niki Fox, Director of Health & Wellbeing at the Village.
Establishing new friendships after retirement is among the key benefits of getting involved with the Village community. Last year, they hosted more than 400 Zoom and in-person events, designed to entertain, educate, learn, and engage with a diverse group of interesting people. Within a month of the start of the COVID pandemic, training members to use Zoom effectively had taken place.
“Older people have so much to offer but are often left out of the conversation,” says Ruth Ann Watkins, board chair of the RRF Foundation for Aging. “The Village wants to promote inclusion throughout Chicagoland so that we all learn and benefit from one another.”
Mary O’Donnell, President of RRF Foundation for Aging, spoke with us about collaborating with the Village: “The Village is one of our strong grantee partners, working hard to improve quality of life of older people. I love the way they connect with different members of the community to create a vibrant network that taps everyone’s assets.”
“Since COVID, with its awful and profound loss, more attention has been paid to older adults and to the detrimental effects of isolation and loneliness,” she continues. “The Village has done great work advancing social connectedness, bridging generational divides, and combating ageism.”
Turn the Page on Age is an awareness campaign the Village launched in the spring with partner and collaborator Chicago Innovation: “We want to promote inclusion and reduce age segregation by showing that intergenerational teams at work and in the community drive innovation, productivity, and personal satisfaction,” says Chicago Innovation CEO Luke Tanen. “Everyone has something to teach and something to learn.”
The Village put these concepts into action by partnering with MATTER Chicago this summer. Through MATTER Accelerating Innovation in Aging program that focuses on developing new technologies to address isolation and loneliness. The Village served as a sounding board and advisor to a host of nine startups selected from around the globe.
“The Village Chicago has been a fantastic partner in this program by offering guidance to the cohort companies, including connecting them to potential users for feedback and product refinement. This type of support for early-stage innovators is essential,” says MATTER CEO Steven Collens.
“Engaging the older generation is critically necessary in developing new technologies,” said Consumer Technology Association Foundation Executive Director Steve Ewell in his keynote address at MATTER. “Are you solving the right problem? What is the value proposition for older adults? We can address social isolation in a wide variety of ways.”
Ewell pointed out that there isn’t a separate “age technology,” and new ideas have to leverage what people already have and use. He cited that 89% of older adults readily employ TV and smart phones, indicating that is a starting point for developing new products and apps that people will actually use.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there for people to use their skills and talents through social engagement that leads to health and wellbeing. The programs offered by the Village are great services. One of the biggest challenges is making people aware of what is out there. Among the newest opportunities are customized tours through numerous virtual realities sites, including travel destinations and museums. There are so many new developments around virtual reality, including ones offered by Healium, an app which uses sensors to customize the experience to your heart rate to make it a more peaceful experience. Virtual reality also offers programs to help caretakers,” he shared.
The Village and its volunteer network help older adults make connections in the areas that contribute to a sense of purpose, from technology advising to participating in small group activities as diverse as knitting, pickle-ball, book and movie discussions, music, and just about anything else. But they also want to help people who wish to stay in the workforce beyond the standard retirement age.
“We know that 10,000 people a day turn 65, and many of them want or need to continue working but struggle with age bias: being told they are ‘over-qualified’ or ‘not a good fit’ with the organization,” Evon says.
Tom Kuczmarski, co-founder of Chicago Innovation, agrees: “There are about 11 million open jobs in this country and only about half as many job seekers. Employers could add flexible hours, remote workplaces and a culture that embraces the diversity of age in the workplace.” The pair recently wrote an essay on ageism for the Chicago Tribune that has been syndicated across the county.
The Village also hosts many events and activities that embrace the holistic definition of health and wellbeing as espoused by the World Health Organization. At their Annual Benefit, the Village gives three Trailblazer Awards each year for an individual, an organization, and an author that are recognized for improving the lives of older adults.
Becca Levy, PhD, a Yale professor and researcher will win the Author Trailblazer Award for Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live (William Morrow, 2022). Her path-breaking research shatters long-held notions about aging. She shows that negative views on your health and aging can shorten your life by an average of 7.5 years. Even memory tests showed that a positive attitude allowed people to perform as much as 30% better than those with negative beliefs about getting older. Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing, and physical function.
Levy does a brilliant job debunking stereotypes and myths about aging. The central message of these trailblazing studies is one of optimism: “In my research I have found that above and beyond general emotions such as happiness or gloominess, age beliefs are what drive outcomes including how well we recall information, or how quickly we walk around the block. We know that age beliefs are malleable because they change throughout history and because I have been able to shift them from negative to positive in research studies.”
Her research has received awards from the American Psychological Association, the Gerontological Society of America, and the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, and has also played a key role in the World Health Organization Campaign to Combat Ageism.
Dr. Neelum Aggarwal will receive the Trailblazer for an individual. She is recognized for her decades of research and patient care in brain health, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Aggarwal was an important part of the team led by Martha Clare Morris at Rush University Medical Center to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of the groundbreaking MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). This diet has shown that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced by about 35% for people who followed it moderately well and up to 53% for those who adhered to it rigorously.
Dr. Aggarwal cares deeply about people and how to use advancements in medicine to improve lives. This is reflected in her work to amplify the doctor-patient relationship, beginning with the family and continuing into the community through networks of engagement and empowerment. Her considerable energy is always positive, focusing on prevention and preservation, fortified with knowledge about how to live our best lives.
The Jane Addams Senior Caucus will receive the Trailblazer for an organization this year. JASC’s mission “envisions a world where all seniors can age with dignity and safety, free of ageism, racism, and other forms of oppression.” Its methods are based on community organizing: crossing neighborhood, racial, religious, generational, and socioeconomic lines to find common ground.
“The Village Chicago is a wonderful organization that helps us navigate what can be the best years of our life as older adults,” says Board President Karen Terry. “Please help us as we expand programs and services for all Chicagoans. Perhaps you can attend our annual benefit, make a donation, become a volunteer, or join our Board of Directors. We are working to build a city that’s kinder and more inclusive.”
For further information, visit The Village Chicago.